Alberta government sought aid from Ottawa in midst of Coutts border blockade

More than a week into a protest impeding travel across the United States border, Alberta reached out to the federal government with a request for help.

Call came prior to court challenge of Emergencies Act, which cited provincial handling of blockade

A truck convoy of anti-COVID-19 vaccine mandate demonstrators block the highway at the busy U.S. border crossing in Coutts, Alta. on Feb. 2. Three days later, Alberta's minister of municipal affairs sent a letter to the federal government seeking help from Ottawa to remediate the situation. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

More than a week into a protest impeding travel to the United States border, Alberta reached out to the federal government with a request for help.

In a letter obtained by CBC News sent to federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair, Alberta's Minister of Municipal Affairs Ric McIver wrote that the province was "currently experiencing significant issues" in regards to travel to the border.

"Despite our best efforts to resolve this ongoing issue, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have exhausted all local and regional options to alleviate the week-long service disruptions," McIver wrote in the letter, which is dated Feb. 5.

According to the letter, the RCMP had attempted to secure appropriate heavy-duty equipment required to remove vehicles and other items, such as trailers and tractors, from the area.

Those attempts to secure those services from providers across Western provinces and the United States failed, the letter said, largely due to the result of "private industry concern over negative consequences."

As such, McIver wrote, the province was requesting federal assistance that included providing equipment and personnel to move dozens of semi-tractor trailers, as well as personal and recreational vehicles, from the area.

Attempts to secure heavy-duty equipment providers across Western provinces and the United States failed, according to Alberta's minister of municipal affairs, leading to the province seeking aid from the federal government. (Submitted by Brad Smith)

"As this complex and dynamic situation continues to impede the free and safe movement of not only Albertans, but also of critical goods and services vital to both the Canadian and American economy, we are looking to the Government of Canada for assistance," McIver wrote.

Court challenge

On Saturday, Premier Jason Kenney said Alberta would launch a court challenge against the federal government's invoking of the Emergencies Act.

"As we've demonstrated here in Alberta at Coutts and Ontario did at the Windsor Ambassador bridge, provincial law authorities are able to deal with illegal road blockades," Kenney said in a video posted to Twitter.

Bill Blair, the federal minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, said on CBC's Rosemary Barton Live that the federal government helped and responded to Alberta's request for help amid an ongoing blockade near Coutts, Alta. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In response, Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said he doesn't want to "begin to explain the premier's motives" for wanting to launch a court challenge. 

"They urged us, they made a plea to us to please help. We did," Blair said, while on CBC's Rosemary Barton Live Sunday morning.

"We helped and we responded. The measures worked and have been effective."

In a thread posted to Twitter on Sunday afternoon, McIver said the federal government did not grant Alberta's request for federal assistance.

"Ultimately, Alberta RCMP was supported by additional personnel transferred from British Columbia RCMP, and the Government of Alberta procured the necessary heavy equipment to remove commercial vehicles," he said.

Lori Williams, a political science professor at Mount Royal University, said Kenney's challenge against the Emergencies Act is undercut by the province requesting that same kind of help two weeks ago.

"It looks hypocritical, it looks contradictory," she said. "It's entirely OK to question the Emergencies Act, and there are a lot of questions to be asked about the Emergencies Act.

"But when there's no indication whatsoever that provincial jurisdiction will be trampled on, and there are at least two challenges to that act being launched by other groups, he had been much better off expressing concern and leaving it to someone else to take that issue forward."

In a video posted to Twitter on Saturday arguing against the invocation of the Emergencies Act, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said provincial law authorities are able to deal with illegal road blockades. Two weeks prior, his minister of municipal affairs called for aid from Ottawa due to a lack of resources. (Jeff McIntosh/ The Canadian Press)

In a statement, a spokesperson for Alberta's acting minister of justice and solicitor general said the province asked for assistance "in part because local Alberta RCMP remains under the control of the federal government."

"The use of the Emergencies Act was never something that Alberta asked for, or required," said Alex Puddifant in an email.

"Its use is unjustified, and sets a dangerous precedent. The Coutts situation required federal resources — not the use of legislation that suspends civil liberties."

Emergencies Act

In invoking the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said doing so would give the federal government temporary powers to handle the ongoing blockades and protests.

"It is now clear that there are serious challenges to law enforcement's ability to effectively enforce the law," Trudeau said during a news conference.

The Emergencies Act grants cabinet the ability to "take special temporary measures that may not be appropriate in normal times," including power to assume jurisdiction from the provinces and municipalities.

The federal government must determine that an emergency "exceeds the capacity or authority" of provinces to deal with those issues.

The blockade of the border lasted more than two weeks. An RCMP raid of trailers in the early morning hours on Feb. 14 led to officers seizing guns, body armour, a large quantity of ammunition and high-capacity firearm magazines. 

With files from David Cochrane